in the company of mothers

I meet my long-time friend L. for breakfast. “Please tell me,” she says, as she slides into the booth, “that you are not in crisis.”

I laugh. “I’m not,” I assure her. She sets her bag down and adjusts her sweater, says, “Oh, good, because everyone else around me is.”

“You missed all my crises,” I tell her. “I’ve already had mine without you. You were gone all summer. I couldn’t wait.” We laugh. She orders tea. She has a complicated life and she fills me in on the various turns of it.

I have not seen her in months. I realize as she is speaking how much I have missed her. She reports on the people in her life, people we both know. Of jobs lost. Of a divorce. Of difficulties with her children. “It’s been a challenge,” she says, “the summer was not easy.”

“But tell me about you,” she says, as she folds her napkin and sets it down on the table. “How have you been?”

I have known L. for years. Our paths crossed through an organization where I worked part-time for a few months during college. I sat next to her at lunch at a meeting one day and we started talking. I had no idea, of course, what she would come to mean to me.

How she would tell me, in the quiet dark booth of the deli a mile from her house, about the child she was made to give up for adoption.

How she would tell me the stories of her own adopted children. How I would come to watch them grow, witness them, at a distance, in their own fierce struggles.

How she was searching for her daughter. How she said she would never stop searching.

How during the long process of my divorce, I went to her. She made us tea and we sat in her kitchen and looked out on the bay. A lawyer by training, she drew up a checklist of things to ask for. What’s in the best interest of your daughter, she said.

How before I left for Korea, she called me and told me how loved I was.

How she told me that she had found her daughter when she found her. How I was happy for her - so happy - but also a little scared about losing her.

How during some difficult days of my marriage, I sought refuge there. She was kind, but direct. You already know the answer, she said. There are things you have no right to expect, she said.

After our plates have been cleared and we linger there with our cups, I tell her about the past several months. My struggles with 40. When I get to the part about realizing how much I wanted to be found, her eyes well up with tears and she reaches her arms out across the table to put her hands on mine.

In this moment, I look at her, the tears in her eyes, the kindness of her face, her arms outstretched, the strength in her hands as they clasp mine. My god, I think, and I can feel something hard in my throat as my own eyes fill. I have spent my whole life wanting mothers, and there are mothers all around me.

I think about my aunt, of course. Her utter devotion. From before my mother’s own illness, how she stepped in to fill the gap that my mother’s absence left. How she mothers me still. In every possible way.

About A., who I met in my first job after college. How she mentored me, cared for me. Brought me into the lives of her own children, who were not too far from me, in age. On weekends, she would cook for me and we’d spend the days together. How careless I was with her. I can no longer remember the circumstances that precipitated our falling out, but I remember being angry and petulant. Ungrateful.

About the women who have given me things that I have needed, have led me to the lessons I have needed to learn. About B.’s mother, who reached out to me, even after the divorce.

About M.’s mother, who writes me letters to tell me that I am like a daughter to her. Who took us in, my daughter and me, as if we were her own all along.

And L., about dear, dear L. who has been, for so much of my adult life, a constant, steadfast presence. Who I know I can call when I don’t know where to turn. On whom I have come to rely for a kind of clear-sighted, hard-won wisdom. One that does not judge. One that wants only what is in my own best interest.

The waitress comes by with coffee pot in hand, then hesitates and walks on as she sees us, our cheeks wet with tears, our arms locked.

Outside the restaurant, L. and I embrace. I have told her that I have come to understand the longing. That I am learning to manage it. Like a chronic illness, I say. Learning to live with it. That is good, she says, that is right. There are questions you will never be able to answer. We all have them. You learn to manage them. You learn how to manage it all.

The morning is bright and cool. I hold my car keys in my hand as we stand out on the sidewalk and talk for a few minutes longer. I don’t want to let her go this morning. We hug again.

“You are doing well,” she says. “You are doing just fine.” Let’s not let so much time pass next time, before we do this again, she says.

She tells me she is proud of me. She tells me that she loves me. And as I walk back to the parking lot, holding back new tears, I believe her.

I believe her.